The Armenian table

San Bernardino Sun, CA
Redlands Daily Facts, CA
Long Beach Press-Telegram, CA
Feb 23 2005

The Armenian table

Make it soecial with cusine’s unique flavors

By Natalie Haughton
Staff Writer

Armenian cooking, a cuisine that blends Mediterranean flavors with
Persian, Turkish and Russian accents, stirs up fond childhood
memories for Carla Simonian of Woodland Hills for foods like shish
kebabs, sarmas (stuffed grape leaves), dolmas (stuffed vegetables),
basterma (air-dried beef), boeregs (filo cheese triangles), lavosh,
lahmajoun (Armenian pizza), pilafs and kadayif (filo dessert).
Whenever her family gathered, there were abundant tables of food. Now
she’s sharing her culinary heritage with her daughters.

“I think my cooking was influenced by a tight family background and
always being around Armenian food,” said Simonian, who taught herself
to cook Armenian food with the help of books and advice from her
aunts, grandmother, cousins and mother-in-law.

Food traditions are important to Armenian families.

In a recently released cookbook, “The Armenian Table” (St. Martin’s
Press; $29.95), Victoria Jenanyan Wise of Oakland shares her heritage
and treasured family recipes.

Wise recalls regularly visiting her father’s relatives in Sacramento
(her father was Armenian) “who were the major family figures of my
childhood in terms of food.” For major celebratory occasions, the men
always grilled the shish kebabs while the woman handled the other
cooking tasks.

“Altogether, the cupboard holds a nutritious and fragrant mix,
aromatic and colorful as a spice bazaar or open-air market,” said
Wise of Armenian cuisine.

Hallmarks include lamb, dried fruits (apricots, dates, raisins, figs,
prunes), nuts (walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, pistachios), yogurt,
string cheese, filo dough, butter, olive oil, bulgur, rice, lemon
juice, cider vinegar, lots of vegetables (eggplant, green beans,
tomatoes, fresh peppers, etc.), fresh herbs such as mint, dill and
parsley, and spices and seasonings like cumin, paprika, cinnamon,
Aleppo pepper and sumac.

“Most of the ingredients in Armenian food are very natural and
healthy,” said Simonian. “We were eating yogurt years before it ever
caught on here.”

While Armenian food has some similarities to other Middle Eastern
cuisines, there are differences. Armenians typically don’t use tahini
or hummus.

Simonian, a Los Angeles native, recollects her grandfather (who
raised her along with an aunt after her mother died) making a
delicious hot yogurt soup and lots of stews (green beans with lamb
and others with leeks).

“We had lots of vegetables (green beans, stuffed bell peppers,
stuffed onions, squash and so on), only a small amount of meat and
often just sliced cucumbers, tomatoes or radishes or olives instead
of a green salad.”

Lavosh — a yeast dough Armenian cracker bread that softens when you
dampen with a little water and let stand covered with a towel for 20
to 40 minutes — replaced bread. Available in bags of 6 in Middle
Eastern markets, large dry lavosh rounds will keep for weeks at room

When friends and relatives gathered, a glorious, colorful maza
(appetizer) platter — a mainstay of the Armenian table — with
basterma (dried beef with a coating of chaiman, a paste made of
fenugreek with paprika and other spices), string cheese, assorted
black olives, tourshi (pickled vegetables like carrots, cabbage,
cauliflower or green beans), eggplant dip, lavosh, boeregs and more
was always served before dinner, said Simonian. It’s a tradition
she’s kept alive when entertaining today, even when she serves
nontraditional Armenian entrees like grilled steaks, chicken or

Although neither Simonian nor Wise serves Armenian fare daily (it’s
reserved for special occasions and family gatherings), the flavors
and scents permeate their everyday cooking.

Wise’s informative cookbook, her 13th, contains more than 165
recipes, a mix of traditional signature favorites along with
inspired, innovative and contemporary variations on the theme. For
cooks, it’s Armenian 101 and much more — a great way to learn about
the cuisine. Wise made a concerted effort to make the recipes
approachable and easy to execute.

Particularly interesting are her notes accompanying each recipe and
her from-scratch renditions of yogurt, lavosh, mock basterma and